Concert at fairgrounds in 1968 landed big-name acts but only a small
spot in county's collective memory.
August 3, 2008
By JEFF OVERLEY
THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
COSTA MESA -- If a crowd big enough to fill the Rose Bowl formed and
smoked pot for two days straight, you'd think just about everyone –
except maybe those who smoked pot for two days straight – would remember.
Alas, judging by the sparse historical record, relatively few folks
seem to recall the Newport Pop Festival of 1968.
This, despite 100,000 people walking through the gates (or hopping
over the fences) during the two-day show at the Orange County
Fairgrounds. This, despite an illustrious (if somewhat scruffy)
lineup that included the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Sonny and
Cher, the Byrds and Tiny Tim.
It's sad but true – local memories simply haven't reserved much space
for the one-time-only hippie extravaganza.
A hardcover history of Costa Mesa doesn't mention it, nor does a
timeline assembled by the Orange County Historical Society. The Costa
Mesa Historical Society could only dig up a single newspaper
clipping, and the Orange County Archivist found zip.
Plug the concert into an Internet search engine and you're just as
likely to come across the Newport '69 Pop Festival – a completely
different show headlined by Jimi Hendrix at the old Devonshire Downs
racetrack in Northridge.
"I've talked with some people who were as old as me and lived here
their whole life, and they didn't even know it happened," said Gary
Zaremba, a Mission Viejo resident who wore a fuzzy beard and a pair
of moccasins to the concert.
But Orange County's version of Woodstock really did happen.
Two days of counterculture rock, wild dancing, broiling heat and
frolicking in manmade mud puddles. Two days of a police force on
alert, bad acid trips in "bummer tents," concert-goers sleeping in
bushes and vendors hawking tie-dyed shirts. "Two stoned-out days," in
the words of Las Vegas musician and festival attendee Mark Rodney,
happened here exactly 40 years ago this weekend.
Fans stormed Costa Mesa on Friday, Aug. 2, 1968, apparently thinking
they could camp out at the fairgrounds before gates opened at 8 the
That wasn't the case, and "by dark, hundreds were driving and
strolling the streets looking for fields with tall grass or maybe
even a bush," according to an Aug. 3, 1968, article in the Los Angeles Times.
As the hordes searched for sleeping quarters, crews set up the
concert seating – hay bales and piles of sand – as well as a simple
striped canopy to shade the stage.
"The impression I have is how plain everything was," said San Diego
resident Jim Scott, a Marine who had just returned from Vietnam when
the concert began. "It was just kind of like everything was thrown
together in a parking lot."
Not that it mattered to the revelers, who plunked down $4.50 apiece
to attend. Said one attendee, quoted by the Times: "We're gonna do
nothin' but groove all weekend."
TUNES AND TEMPERATURES
They grooved, all right, but no more than they sweated. "People were
passing out, it was so hot," said Trullee Fike, a photographer who
attended both days.
So searing was the summer heat that it eclipsed all the logistics
facing police. "Most of the small incidents seemed to be connected
with the scanty supply of drinking water on the hot, dusty
fairgrounds," The Orange County Register – then simply The Register –
reported at the time.
"Persons entering the crowd with water jugs were immediately
besieged. One security guard said the only serious thing he observed
all day was 'when they ran out of Cokes: then the kids raised hell
because they couldn't get anything at all to drink.'"
To bring relief, someone called in a water tanker that soaked the
crowd, created a giant puddle and eventually dried up into a big pit
of mud that concert-goers wallowed in like happy pigs.
"Everyone was just covered in mud," Fike recalled. "It didn't help a bunch."
A MIXED MUSICAL BAG
Luckily, some of the era's top musical acts were on hand to distract
from the temperature. And the record suggests that, with some
exceptions, those bands delivered.
The Grateful Dead and Canned Heat gave "exceptional performances,"
the Times said. Tiny Tim, the ghoulish ukulele strummer with the
tremulous falsetto, was the only member of the star-studded lineup
who needed a police escort to ward off avid fans.
Sonny and Cher, on the other hand, sang "painfully out-of-key,"
forcing Sonny Bono to admit, "I know we're not considered the
ultimate in hippies anymore," according to the Times.
As Country Joe and the Fish rounded out the first day of jamming,
"Even the cops on stage were grinning and ad-libbing a moderate
version of the boogaloo," Rolling Stone magazine reported.
By that point, some were already reeling. "I'll tell you how chaotic
it was," Fike said. "I was so tired at the end of the first day that
I don't even remember anything the second day. I just know I was there."
Others, however, had plenty of room for more. Rodney, then a roadie
setting up amplifiers for Country Joe and the Fish, recalled that
heavy-metal band Blue Cheer shredded early in the morning the second
day "for all the acid heads who had stayed up all night."
Zaremba, the Mission Viejo resident, didn't have tickets when he
showed up the second day, but fortune intervened as he leaned on the
gate – little more than a heavy drape on a rope – with other fans.
"One whole side of fence came down, and I just rushed in with a bunch
of people," Zaremba recalled.
He only stayed, though, for a few hours. "We got a little too much
sun, a little too much other things," Zaremba said wryly, "and ended
up having to leave."
Had he stuck around, Zaremba would have seen rocker Eric Burdon, who
"fell off the stage, danced with (a) half-dozen teenyboppers, set off
smoke bombs, poured beer over his head, smashed the instruments –
almost anything to divert attention, presumably, from the lack of
quality of his music," the Times reported.
He also would have seen the climactic end – a massive cream pie fight
involving David Crosby, Jerry Garcia and who-knows-how-many bystanders.
The whole giant show went off with few hitches. Police, fearful of
touching off a riot, all but ignored drug use and made just a handful
Nonetheless, three days later, the Costa Mesa City Council vowed to
prevent a Newport Pop Festival encore. "To say that we would not like
it back here would be the understatement of the year," Mayor Alvin
Pinkley was quoted as saying.
That sentiment wasn't unanimous. "I don't admire the hippy or
longhair type particularly," said Councilman George Tucker, "but I
feel there must be a place where people can blow off steam, whether
it be a football game at the Coliseum or a pop festival in Costa Mesa."
But officials ultimately ended up adopting a sweeping ban that
curtailed playing musical instruments in public places and sleeping
in cars, among other things.
With that, the Newport Pop Festival faded to history, just another of
the similarly titled concerts that year – the L.A. Pop Festival, the
Miami Pop Festival and the Rome Pop Festival among them.
Rodney, who says he offered David Crosby a joint in exchange for a
ride home, said the experience crystallized his musical persuasions.
"That era right there – the Newport Pop Festival – really shaped who
I became as a musician," he said. "That's how important that event
was to me. … I wanted to be a musician, but after, I knew that was
the life for me."
Scott, the Vietnam veteran, on the other hand, doesn't even remember
which bands he listened to, seeing the event more through the prism
of anti-war protests. "Politically, I felt simpatico with everyone
who was there," said Scott, whose close-cropped military haircut made
him stick out from the counterculture crowd.
Then there's Fike, the photographer who has a wistful take on the
show, calling it a microcosm of the era she could sense would be
fleeting. "I knew it wasn't going to last," said Fike, who now works
at a Wal-Mart in the Lucerne Valley. "I knew, this is all gonna be
And, aside from newspaper microfilm stories and the memories of a
select few, it just about is, even for those who didn't smoke pot for
two days straight.
Contact the writer: 714-445-6683 or firstname.lastname@example.org